Local politics: who gives an X?

Today's polls are unlikely to reflect town-hall effectiveness. David Walker deplores the nationalisation of our political culture
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Today's local elections look as if they will turn into another opinion poll on the national standing of the parties. Voting in Birkenhead, Basildon and Bath will be hailed as a judgement in the beauty contest between Tony Blair and John Major. That is a shame, and not only because MORI could have organised it a lot more cheaply.

Local elections ought to be local at least in part, and nowadays that must mean residents giving a verdict of some kind on the skill and effectiveness, the economy and efficiency with which the town hall has been performing. How far will voting today constitute such an exercise in accountability?

The answer seems to be: not much. Local elections have been nationalised, and there are two good reasons why that should be deplored.

The first ought to worry two of the likely winners, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, for whom local activism is an important part of both party and policy package. The expected pro-Labour tide could serve to diminish further the legitimacy of the local electoral process, at a time when Labour is toying with ideas about regionalism and the replacement of quangos with elected bodies. Many Tory councillors will lose their seats not because they have been bad councillors, or even because the authorities they control have not delivered services well and economically, but simply because the party label is wrong.

The second reason for anxiety about the elections is that for the past few months electors have had in their hands (if they have been reading the local press or are prepared to shell out a few pounds to HMSO) massive evidence of how well or badly their councillors are performing, in the shape of the Audit Commission's Local Authority Performance Indicators.

We must not be too rationalist about elections, but somewhere in the polling process there surely ought to be a sense of approval or blame. The Audit Commission figures offer voters a knowledge base. For every local authority in England and Wales there now exists a guide to how well they do on certain standard tests, from the cost of collecting council tax to the numbers of pre-schoolers offered nursery places.

There is no point pretending these figures leap off the page and translate immediately into score cards for councillors. The Audit Commission chose a Milk Tray selection of indicators, some with harder centres than others. Voters would need to make their own assessments of the significance of, say, how much help is provided for disabled people, in the light of local circumstances and spending.

But aren't such judgements precisely ones local residents alone can properly make? You have to live on Merseyside to begin to understand why two poor boroughs such as Liverpool and Knowsley occupy different places in the same league tables. Andrew Foster, the Audit Commission's controller, says that kind of local judgement is precisely the purpose of his statistics. What voters should have been doing before today was asking why, say, Manchester councillors seem to have done worse, not by comparison with leafy Trafford, but in comparison with similarly disadvantaged Labour metropolitan councils.

Throwing councillors out is an atomic device. It is highly unlikely that the voters of Salford would ever troop to the polls asking why it takes their council well over twice the metropolitan average time to re-let a council dwelling. The townspeople of Barnsley are unlikely to turn out in their droves to thank their representatives for the most efficient council tax collection service among the big-city districts. Yet someone ought to ask those questions, and if not the voters, everything falls on the shoulders of unelected auditors and the grant-distributors of Whitehall.

It won't do to suggest, as some councillors do, that the public cannot understand subtle indices. If you live in the clapboard jungle along the south coast, you are well able to make up your own mind about whether it is a good thing that Worthing is nearly three times as quick as nearby Brighton in deciding planning applications.

If you take away electoral retribution - turning the rascals out - as a final sanction for disgruntled residents, what is there left to ensure performance? Admittedly, hard evidence is lacking, but anecdote and impression say that service delivery improves if ruling politicians are challenged. The Liberal Democrats who precariously hold the lead in seats at Lambeth have shown not that they will turn round that basket-case of a borough, but that political change stimulates and refreshes administrative parts no other formula can touch. The point is: if there is never to be electoral punishment or reward for under-achievement - in delivering services, or minimising council tax - it might well be quicker by quango.

William Waldegrave took a lot of flak when, as minister for public services, he suggested people were more concerned with service quality than the degree of local representation. That, he said, justified the Government's attitude towards replacing elected with appointed bodies. Here, then, is a context for today's polling: what does it tell us about our penchant for elected vs non-elected bodies?

Turnout figures point in the direction of public indifference. Turnout in local elections is unimpressive, though stable, and it has shown small signs of rising recently, but still six out of ten people rarely vote. According to a recent academic study paid for by the Department of the Environment, turnout rises when there is general political excitement such as an impending general election - a sign of how nationalised the political culture has become.

Is it mainly those with a financial stake in the outcome who vote? Colin Rallings, Michael Temple and Michael Thrasher, in a report for the Commission on Local Democracy, showed that council tenants were more likely to vote than owner-occupiers - grist for the old Tory argument that council estates had to be broken up in order to dismantle Labour's municipal hegemony. But equally they found that "one-party states" have had a negative effect on turnout.

The healthiest local democracy, measured by turnout, seems to be where party competition is tight and where there are "big" local issues, such as building a new road. Large multi-member wards do not seem to help: having just a single councillor to represent them could ginger more interest.

A defender of local democracy, David Clark of the Commission on Local Democracy (a cross-party think tank paid for mainly by municipal unions), argues that people would take more interest if councils did more. If services are provided uniformly, with minimal departure from the national script allowed by Whitehall, why bother, he asks. Chicken and egg: if councils had more power (more capacity to provoke people?) turnout and attention to local issues would be higher.

But this argument, suggesting there is some great subterranean pool of civic interests, is unconvincing. The evidence is that people are basically utilitarian about local services, caring about how much and how good, but not particularly about who provides.

A survey for the Channel 4/Democratic Audit democracy poll last year found people expressing a clear preference for elected over non-elected (except in the case of the police and health), but also deep indifference to the mechanics of service delivery: hence general public ignorance on which bit of the machinery of state does what.

People today have an opportunity to say something, however muffled, about town hall performance. The likelihood that they won't - and that when and if they turn out it will be to seal the fate of the national parties - must count as a "no" vote for direct democracy in providing local services.

The writer is urban affairs correspondent of the BBC.